The Oriental Drama: Our Playwrights Are Looking to the Far-East for Inspiration and Royalties
Vanity Fair, January 1920
At last it has happened. The long-awaited great event of our generation has occurred — Aphrodite has had its New York production at the Century Theatre. Now we can all go quietly about our trifling little pursuits again. Outwardly, we are practically unchanged; to look at us, you would never suspect that we are far, far different from the simple souls we were before that night of the first of December when Morris Gest hospitably threw wide the doors of the mammoth theatre and, at the purely nominal cost of eleven dollars a ticket, permitted the gaping multitudes to view the premiere of the sensational spectacle of the age. But we-especially those of us who paid for our first-night tickets — we know. We have lived and we have learned, albeit the lesson was a costly one in both time and money. And as we look ahead, down the vista of the future years, we can plainly see that it is going to be an appreciable time before we ever fall that heavily again.
It all comes of reading the papers — that is what was responsible for the block-long queue that patiently stood all day long, waiting for a chance to reach the Century box office. Of course, what you think of the results achieved by the Hylan administration is entirely your own affair, but you must admit that our esteemed Mayor got in some great press-work for Aphrodite. For months beforehand, the professional publicity writers had enthused almost to the point of hysteria over the
magnificence of the production; but Honest John did more for the box-office receipts in a single day than the combined efforts of the most talented and experienced press agents could have accomplished in a year. The Mayor had but to say that he had heard a rumor that there were scandalous goings-on at the Century, and if they weren't careful he would send his Committee of Welcome up to investigate, and the house sold out for eight weeks in advance. The press agents racked their brains for such adjectives as “stupendous,” “superb,” “sensational,” and "overwhelming.” But our own Mayor, with the single word “indecent," did the trick.
Unfortunately, Mayor Hylan was sadly misinformed. The only indecent thing about the production is the price that the ticket agencies demand for its seats. If you have a normal, wholesome interest in that sort of thing you can save yourself about $4.75 and have a far more absorbing evening by the simple process of investing 75 cents in a thoroughly reliable French-English dictionary and borrowing the original Aphrodite from the bookshelves of the friend who brought it back from Paris.
Mr. George Hazelton's dramatization of Pierre Louys' novel has carefully eliminated anything that might hurt anybody's feelings. Barring one undeniably beautiful ballet, directed by Michel Fokine, with unexpressed apologies to Krafft-Ebing, the production is about as decadent as the Hippodrome. It is but an endless series of scenes, held together by an extraordinarily dull story. Many of the scenes are extremely effective; mass hundreds of gaudily clad people together on a huge stage, turn a spotlight upon them, and you can't help having a gorgeous spectacle. But in dignity and impressiveness, save for those scenes played by Dorothy Dalton and McKay Morris, the production is pitifully lacking.
Possibly, this is due, in great part, to the fact that most of the feminine members of the cast were recruited from the Century Roof, where they were trained for emotional rôles in ancient Egyptian dramas by a course of dancing around between tables, singing “Smiles.” Another factor is the casting of Etienne Girardot as physician to the Queen of Egypt, in which rôle he wears much the same make-up that he used in Charlie's Aunt.
The management has spared no expense in its endeavors to purchase atmosphere. There is even a brand-new drop-curtain, for the occasion, painted with the mystic letters , which most of the audience take to be the Greek word for "asbestos.” Perhaps it is because one is so impressed by the obvious expenditure that one loses sight of the atmosphere in marveling at its cost. The imposing list of names, printed in the program, of all those to whom the producers owe a life-long debt for invaluable aid in making the production possible, do no small work in shattering any illusion one may have had. Thus, when one beholds the gleaming white arms of Aphrodite bearing on high the sacred necklace of seventy-seven pearls, one can only remember that the seventy-seven pearls were supplied by Jos. H. Meyer Bros.; when a gorgeous pageant troops across the stage, one promptly recalls that the horses and camels were furnished by Dr. Martin J. Potter; when the moon shines on the Grove of Aphrodite — which looks startlingly like Bryant Park — one knows it is not the moon of ancient Alexandria, but the electrical effects of Messrs. Paul Bismarck and Henry Kliegl; when Demetrios, the sculptor, murders the high priestess and steals her sacred comb to gratify the whim of Chrysis the courtesan, all one can think of is that the sacred comb was made especially for the production by Samstag and Hilder Bros. (Colonial brand). In fact, the only unacknowledged contribution to the performances is Aphrodite's costume which was evidently furnished by the Atlas Paint Company
At one place in the performance, the producers have injected a typical Winter Garden song — which gains more applause that anything else in the entertainment. The plaudits which greet this jazz number suggest a great idea — why not put in more of such songs, build a runway down through the orchestra, cast Johnny Dooley as Demetrios, Fanny Brice as Chrysis, and Kay Laurell as Aphrodite, and, leaving the rest of the dramatis personae unchanged, call the production a revue? Why, it would run for a decade.
Leaving ancient Egypt, with these few impressions, we take a little jaunt to China by dropping into the Belasco Theatre, where Lenore Ulric is starring in The Son-Daughter, a Chinese drama by George Scarborough and David Belasco. The huge success of East Is West has naturally led the playwrights to suspect that there must be something in this Chinese thing; and indeed, there is a great deal in it-mandarin coats and black wigs and red screens and Pidgin English do much to divert attention from the play itself. Mr. Belasco and Mr. Scarborough have played safe and followed East Is West almost exactly, save for the introduction of a revolution into the plot. The play is most effectively produced, with unlimited golden idols, dim red lights, and burning of joss sticks. Miss Ulric plays with commendable restraint in her sweeter moments, and commendable ferocity in her emotional scenes, and Harry Mestayer, Albert Bruning, and Thomas Findlay give clever characterizations. The long cast is supplemented by a horde of supernumeraries whose strictly Chinese costumes and wigs render the more piquant their strikingly Hibernian features.
If Mr. Samuel Shipman is in the house, I should be glad to have him observe me get down and crawl abjectly along the ground for anything I may have said about his brain-child, East Is West. Last season, in the exuberance of youth, I used to think that no play along the same lines could possibly be worse; that was before the dying year brought The Son-Daughter.
It remained for Mr. Armand Vecsey, orchestra leader at the Ritz, to set the East Is West school of drama to music — and to very charming music. Guy Bolton did the book, P. G. Wodehouse the clever lyrics, and Joseph Urban the delightful scenery, and the result is The Rose in China, now on view at the Lyric Theatre. It is hard to speak fairly of the musical comedy. Another time, perhaps, it might have seemed perfectly great, but just at present the Chinese heroines who substitute l's for r's and artlessly inject “Damn’s” and “hell's” into their innocent prattle have rather lost the novelty in which lay most of their appeal. Personally, the rush of the Chinese dramas has so affected me that I am heart and soul for the Shantung clause in the peace treaty; I wish they'd give the whole darned country back.
Still, in the East, though fortunately safely out of China, is the setting of W. Somerset Maugham's play, Caesar's Wife, in which Billie Burke is starred. Those who flock to the Liberty Theatre, expecting another Maugham comedy along the lines of Too Many Husbands, are due for a heavy blow. The scene is laid in Cairo, and the plot concerns the mental struggles of a young bride who falls in love with her elderly husband's secretary, but anticlimactically decides to remain true to the husband. There are but few flashes of Mr. Maugham's brilliance in the dialogue, and the evening seems a long and uneventful one. The piece is beautifully staged and extremely well played, particularly by Norman Trevor, Hilda Spong, Ernest Glendinning and Margaret Dale, who all give their usual finished performances. Miss Burke, in her rôle of the young wife, looks charmingly youthful. She is at her best in her more serious moments; in her desire to convey the girlishness of the character, she plays her lighter scenes as if she were giving an impersonation of Eva Tanguay.
Wedding Bells, at the Harris, brings us back again to New York, for its locale, and it seems just like getting back home once again. Salisbury Field has written a thoroughly delightful comedy, which is acted in a civilized way by sophisticated people, and the resultant enjoyable evening is a boost for the morale of the theatre-going public. Mr. Fields' plot of the divorced wife who turns up just as her ex-husband was about to be married to someone else, and makes him fall in love with her all over again, seems a bit far-fetched, when you see it in print, but it doesn't matter, in the play — it is merely the background against which the sparkling lines are best set off. Margaret Lawrence, playing in a somewhat higher key than she did in Tea For Three, again shows her vast ability as a comedienne, and Wallace Eddinger does the best work he has done in many seasons. He has almost entirely lost his trick of hurrying through his speeches and ending them with a prolonged whine. Jessie F. Glendinning, John Harwood, and Clarke Silvernail are all their rôles demand of them, and Percy Ames is extraordinarily good.
Buddies, come to the Selwyn Theatre, is Mr. George V. Hobart's comedy of American soldiers in France, after the Armistice. It is a cozy picture Mr. Hobart paints of Our Boys in their immaculate private's uniforms, ending in glistening, Brooks Brothers shoes; they are perfectly content to hang around sunny France long after the end of the fighting, because they and their officers all have such jolly times together. But, despite its book, the comedy is decidedly entertaining because of B. C. Hilliam's all too infrequent music, of the dancing of Maxine Brown and Donald Brian-Mr. Brian, having worn every other uniform during his stage career, has last come to the olive drab — of Peggy Wood's charming impersonation of a French peasant girl, and of Roland Young's utterly engaging performance.
Irene would have been a success in any season, but the consistently poisonous quality of this year's musical comedies makes it a conspicuous hit. James Montgomery has written a plausible and occasionally funny book, Harry Tierney has done some charming music and Joe McCarthy has contributed lyrics so far above the usual run that it is a rather a blow to have him bring in “round" to rhyme with “gown.” Edith Day, Bobbie Watson, Gladys Miller and Eva Puck help things along greatly. It looks as if something had settled down at the Vanderbilt Theatre.
The Little Blue Devil, at the Central, can be traced back through a maze of vulgarity (adv.) to an indistinct beginning in Clyde Fitch's The Blue Mouse. Harold Atteridge has badly mangled the book and lyrics and Harry Carroll has slightly rewritten most of the musical successes of the last few seasons. The resulting entertainment features both Bernard Granville and Lillian Lorraine. During one of her emotional moments in the comedy, the latter fervently declares that “she is a good woman even though she is a bad actress.” Miss Lorraine has said something. The football coaches could select an invincible All-American eleven from the line-up of showgirls.